For the past year, revolutions swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Despite their vocal presence, the media didn’t initially display women’s involvement in the protests and negotiations. The same could be said in Afghanistan. It appeared the strides women made might be lost as women were shut out of the peace process. But just as they did in the Arab Spring, women strive to play a vital role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
In the documentary Peace Unveiled, the third installment of Women, War & Peace, written by Abigail E. Disney and directed by Gini Reticker (and WWP series co-creators), we witness 3 tenacious female activists, Parliamentarian Shinkai Karokhail, Hasina Safi and Shahida Hussein, struggling for their voices to be heard in Afghanistan’s treacherous peace negotiations. Following the 2010 surge of U.S. troops, the Afghan government arranged peace negotiations with the toppled Taliban. The women valiantly fight to protect their gains and not have their rights bargained away.
Hasina Safi, one of the 3,000 members of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), a non-partisan NGO working to empower women, visits villages to monitor the programs she coordinates for illiterate women. Classes for women could not be held openly with the Taliban in power. Almost 90% of Afghan women cannot read or write. Through classes, many women are just learning Islam encourages women’s education.
But working women like Safi risk their lives. They receive death threats via horrific letters in the night, telling them they must stop working or else their children will be killed and their homes burned. Safi admits:
“When I go out of the house in the morning, I say goodbye to my children and my family because I say that I never know if I’m coming alive back home or not.”
While women have made massive strides in Afghanistan, a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, supported by President Karzai, “threatens to trade away their hard-earned freedoms.”
Shinkai Karokhail, a founding member of the Afghan Women Educational Center (AWEC), a non-profit seeking gender equality and ending violence against women and children, was elected to parliament in 2005. Karokhail doesn’t want to see women’s rights erode. She warns:
“I am hopeful that my sisters understand the importance of this process…I hope that the Afghan government and, especially, the president, whom women helped elect, do not make a deal that leads Afghan women into miserable lives again.”
Women’s lives have drastically improved since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001. In 2004, Afghanistan’s new constitution guaranteed greater equity for women, including the right to vote and 25% of parliamentary seats. Now, women work, girls attend school, have increased healthcare access and can choose not to wear the burqa. Sadly, that doesn’t mean women are empowered everywhere throughout the country.
In heavily-populated Kandahar, “the birthplace of the Taliban,” the city is plagued with administrative corruption and armed men terrorizing citizens. “Prominent working women are being assassinated. No one knows who’s doing the killing.” Women must wear the burqa to go into the streets. It’s amazing to think that a new constitution protects women’s rights, yet means nothing here.
Shahida Hussein, a women’s rights activist in Kandahar, stands as a beacon of hope amongst the tumult. Women turn to her with their legal and property problems. Hussein serves as a mediator between them and the courts. Yet she worries:
“Women go out with great fear & trepidation. Will there be a suicide attack? Will American tanks or NATO forces fire on people?”
Despite the supposed protection of U.S. troops, women aren’t safe here. In fact, Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. An anonymous woman wearing a burqa tells Hussein:
“When I go out I’m terrified. We are powerless. What kind of government is this? Neither the Americans nor the government rule here. The Americans are on one street and the Taliban on another. They can see each other!”
After the end of the Soviet occupation in 1988, civil war erupted in Afghanistan. The U.S. supplied arms to the Mujahideen (guerilla fighters), fueling the turmoil that ripped the country apart. Homes were destroyed, people raped, burned and massacred. The Taliban emerged from this chaos, coming to power in 1996. Karokhail said:
“During the time of the Taliban, women endured the worst era. They were imprisoned in their homes, every form of activity in their lives was taken away.”
For 5 years, the Taliban ruthlessly oppressed women. They were forced to wear the burqa; if women showed even a hand, they were beaten. “Banned from public life,” they weren’t allowed to work and couldn’t go to a doctor without a male relative, even if in mortal danger. Those years “haunt women who are trying to modernize their country.”
Women strive to be heard; worried the Taliban’s demands will undermine their rights. Yet President Karzai and the government continually shut them out of peace negotiations. No Afghan women were invited to the London Conference for the Afghan peace talks. Male politicians tell the women they must now “surrender their rights” in order to achieve peace with the Taliban. Instead, the women don’t listen, choosing to mobilize so they can be included in Karzai’s peace jirga, or council.
President Karzai promised women only 50 out of 1600 seats at the jirga. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressures Karzai to secure women 20% of the delegate seats. Safi, Hussein and Karokhail all attend to advocate for women’s rights.
On June 2, 2010, the day of the peace jirga, the women take part in the first public debate amongst Afghan citizens to help end the war. Despite attacks from the Taliban, the jirga continues. Karokhail knows the symbolical significance of women’s attendance in negotiations. She asserts:
“It was the first time that Afghan women came together with Afghan men and discuss peace. Maybe it was even very symbolical but it was like breaking something, like break the culture and impose the presence of women.”
Amidst peace negotiations, a Parliamentary election looms. Karokhail was the only woman running for Parliament in Kabul. Unsure she should even enter politics, thinking she couldn’t accomplish much, Karokhail’s friends convinced her that this “is the most important time” to run. Facing campaign fraud and candidates assassinated, Karokhail bravely persists in her re-election campaign. She knows that in order to win, she needs the respect of the men. Karokhail declares:
“Most of these men also make decisions for their wives to whom they should vote. You have to convince them to support women.”
But as research in India has shown, once you get women into political office, both men and women are more likely to support more women serving in office. It’s vital to have more elected officials like Karokhail, staunch advocates for women’s rights.
When another peace conference is held in Kabul with over 70 nations in attendance, Safi and AWN representatives meet with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry to garner women a seat. As a result of their meeting, a women’s representative will have 3 minutes to address the conference with their concerns.
Secretary Clinton addresses the Kabul Conference, insisting on the importance of including women in Afghanistan’s peace process. She asserts:
“The women in Afghanistan are rightly worried that in the very legitimate search for peace, their rights will be sacrificed…None of us can allow that to happen. No peace that sacrifices women’s rights is a peace we can afford to support.”
Palwasha Hassan, an AWN Representative and Karokhail’s sister, spoke as a representative for the women. She insists that “for peace to take hold, everyone in society must be protected.” Hassan became “the first woman ever to address the world from an Afghan stage.” She passionately declares:
“Critically, women’s rights & achievements must not be compromised in any peace negotiations or accords…Women’s experiences of both war and peace-building must be recognized in the peace process.”
But her words go unheard. When the conference concludes, no one “stipulates that women must take part in reshaping the nation.” Disappointed and disheartened at the lack of support for women, Hussein laments:
“Girls in Kandahar have had acid thrown in their faces. Girls have been assassinated. They have been kept at home by their fathers. Schools are being burned. In the rural districts, there are no schools at all.”
“…What astonishes me, what my final issue is that the world community came, saying, “We will work for the people of Afghanistan, especially for the women.” It’s worse than being a dead person in Kandahar. We don’t have a life anymore.”
Following the Kabul Conference, President Karzai forms a Peace Council to reconcile with the Taliban. Secretary Clinton sends U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer to ensure women participate in negotiations. Ambassador Verveer worries Karzai doesn’t want to include women in negotiations. But she hopes to secure women at least one-third of the seats on the peace council.
When President Karzai finally announces the Peace Council representatives, the government shuts women out again. Equality remains elusive.
Despite barriers and set-backs, Safi remains resilient. She asserts:
“I don’t want to go back. I want to make it easy for my daughters. We will struggle; we will struggle till our last breath. We cannot do anything alone. We are a part of the world. We have to be identified to the world. The world has to support us in this.”
Women provide a unique perspective when included in the decision-making process. Yet across the globe, with gender parity in politics a rarity, women are continually relegated to the sidelines of most peace negotiations. Until women and men can participate equally, their rights protected, no peace can exist. Governments must learn that if they ever hope to attain lasting peace, they need to start listening to the voices of their entire population.
Afghan women face an uncertain future as they fight to hold onto their rights. After 9/11, I remember the rallying cries of U.S. politicians claiming we liberated the women of Afghanistan from the Taliban’s totalitarian regime. But all of the women’s freedoms they’ve garnered for themselves threaten to be taken away. The international community must ensure that never happens.
Watch the full episode of Peace Unveiled online or on PBS.